The Baucus-Crapo Bill, Afterthoughts

By Beacon Staff

On Dec. 10, U.S. Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) introduced the S. 2438, the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act. The introduction of this landmark legislation by Baucus, a moderate Democrat who currently chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Crapo, a conservative Republican from perhaps the reddest state of them all, Idaho, should serve as a major wake-up call for the Bush administration that it has gotten way off track in managing recreation on public lands.

If it doesn’t wake them up, well, then it must be a coma.

Baucus has been upset about aggressive fee policy and steadily decreasing recreation opportunity and facilities on public lands for many years, but he didn’t announce his intentions to introduce a bill until last April during an interview with NewWest.Net.

We all know politicians promise things that never happen, but here is a sterling exception. Baucus promised us this bill, and he delivered – and in grand style, I might add. By teaming up with one of the most conservative republicans in Congress, Mike Crapo, he more or less guaranteed us that the bill will be taken seriously by Congress and the administration.

As reported several times on NewWest.Net (search for Recreation Fee Chronology), the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), the legislation that created the current pay-to-play insanity on our public lands was never supported by public land users, nor did members of Congress ever vote on it. Instead, incredibly, it was tacked onto a must-pass spending bill in the waning hours of the 2004 congressional session. This is the type of cloak-and-dagger politics that can give politicians a bad reputation – and makes voters disillusioned with our political process.

Not this time, though. Baucus and Crapo are doing it right, introducing a bill, having hearings, giving us a chance to have our say, and then actually having an up-or-down vote. Even if the bill doesn’t pass, we should all thank Baucus and Crapo for giving us this opportunity.

But it needs to pass, so I hope Congress sends a veto-proof bill to Bush’s desk this year. This is clearly a bipartisan issue with widespread support and no serious opposition except from the top brass at the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior who have been given too much reign and now need to be jerked back to reality.

We’ve already seen a few local papers editorializing against this bill, and we’ll see more because this will be the game plan to defeat the RAT repeal. Each local ranger who has had his or her recreation budget siphoned off in the Beltway and been forced to raise fees just to keep operating will work the local media hoping to get editorials against S. 2438.

Instead, local line officers should be pushing for this bill because everybody is committed to replace any funding now raised from fees. Some will doubt that this will actually happen, but I don’t. Baucus, Crapo and what I’m sure will be a long list of co-sponsors will see agency recreation budgets as a small pot of money on their scale but understand that, politically, it must be replaced.

Some might argue that fee revenue should not be replaced with appropriations because it was always intended to be supplemental and not intended to finance core operations. In practice, though, local recreation budgets were cut in the same amount as fee revenue raised. Contrary to common belief, the U.S. Forest Service (FS) has received a 22 percent increase in its recreation budget over the past ten years, but the Beltway Bureaucracy has sucked up this increase instead of letting it trickle down to the ground in ranger districts to keep campgrounds open and where recreation budgets have been steadily reduced.

Here in Montana, I’ve heard many times that fees are not out of control. And to this I say, yes, not yet. Here’s why:

You’ll never get a Forest Service employee to stand up and say this, but the agency has purposely laid back on instituting and increasing fees because of the agency was quite aware that Baucus opposed this policy and they didn’t want to push him to do what he just did, introduce a bill to give us free access the land we own. In Montana, actually, I think we only have two fee sites, the Quake Lake Visitor Center north of Yellowstone Park and Lake Como in the Bitterroot Valley, so you cold say Baucus has already done his job here.

The same is true, incidentally, in Idaho and Wyoming where powerful, conservative senators did not like fees. Not true, though, in other western states where the Forest Service has created many High Impact Recreation Areas to charge a fee for driving on state highways through our national forests and fees for many other uses, like parking at a trailhead. This will be the future of recreation on our public land in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming if S. 2438 doesn’t pass.

One thing that does bother me about the entire fee controversy is how little attention it gets from major green groups. Only two small groups, the Western Slope No Fee Coalition and Wild Wilderness have been on the front line. I suppose the majors view fees as a minor issue compared to timber management, mining, climate change, et al, but I say, re-think this policy. The gradual privatization and commercialization of our public lands should be a top priority for any environmental group. Hopefully, this bill will finally bring the majors into play.

So, now is our time. Max, the RAT Killer, needs your help. Let him and your other elected officials know you support free access to our public lands.